Reacting to charges of improper procedures, Texas's $3 billion cancer research fund has agreed to re-review a controversial $20 million commercialization award made in March to two Houston institutions. But it's not clear whether the plan will satisfy the critics, who are asking for a rigorous scientific review.
Meanwhile, according to e-mails obtained by a Texas newspaper, a Nobel-prizing scientist who resigned partly over concerns about the grant was pushed to leave after he complained that reviews had become politicized.
The grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) provides $20 million in 1 year to be split between Rice University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which will get the lion's share—up to $18 million—for its Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS). CPRIT's chief scientific officer, Alfred Gilman, announced earlier this month that he's resigning  in part because he believes IACS, which plans to discover and develop drugs, is a research program "disguise[d]" as commercialization to avoid scientific review. CPRIT's scientific review council shared these concerns.
Other questions about the award process have since come up : Some members of CPRIT's commercialization review council, which approved the incubator grant, have ties to Rice or MD Anderson, for instance. And MD Anderson's portion did not go through the university's provost office, which looks at potential conflicts of interest and might have identified one in this case, because principal investigator Lynda Chin is married to MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho. Critics allege that CPRIT and MD Anderson bypassed normal procedures.
Yesterday, DePinho sent CPRIT a letter  that calls the allegations "inaccurate" and "false" but says it is "understandable" why scientists would be concerned "in the absence of all of the facts." The letter says MD Anderson is willing to resubmit its proposal for "further review." But the letter denies that the grant should go through the MD Anderson provost. Because it is a business plan, the proposal will be reviewed by MD Anderson's "business affairs" department, the letter says.
CPRIT Executive Director William Gimson wrote back  to DePinho the same day to say that CPRIT accepts the offer to re-review the IACS part of the incubator proposal. (He declines MD Anderson's offer to delay funding for a year, because that would be inconsistent with CPRIT policies.) The letter also states that in keeping with the incubator Request for Applications (RFA) approved last year by the CPRIT board, the proposal will be reviewed by CPRIT's commercialization review council. At the same time, Gimson writes, "the incubator RFA is designed for commercial ventures and any proposal submitted must comply with that criterion."
What's not clear is whether the commercialization reviewers will see the IACS project the same way the scientific critics do. They argue that because IACS has aims such as studying "target biology" and has not identified products or a company, it is not about commercialization but about science. Depending on how soon MD Anderson resubmits its proposal, the commercialization review council could make a decision before the CPRIT board's next meeting in July.
Gilman's concerns over CPRIT's review process led to pressure to leave, according to an online report today from The Dallas Morning News. The article  quotes an April e-mail from Gilman to colleagues in which he says Gimson told him to resign because CPRIT's board "has no faith in your ability to do your job." Gilman writes that he responded that "I would not resign, they would need to dismiss me."
More from the article:
The resignation request by Bill Gimson, executive director of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, came after Gilman wrote a four-page letter in which he warned that "political considerations" should have no place in deciding how CPRIT should award public dollars.
Gilman's email and letters were among hundreds of pages of documents released by CPRIT in response to a public records request by The Dallas Morning News. Reached for comment this morning, Gilman declined to answer questions.
Dozens of emails focus on Gilman's stance that CPRIT's "peer review" system, in which out-of-state scientists review applications to avoid possible conflicts of interest, is under attack from foes, including some members of the agency's Oversight Committee that Gilman referred to as "really evil people."